Leonhard Euler and Saint Petersburg

Hi, this is Sergey Lupuleac again with a new story about a great Petersburger. I’m not a historian, not even an expert in the history of mathematics. So, I will not tell much about Leonhard Euler. You can google it. While preparing this post, I googled “The greatest mathematician of all times” and was offered many different lists called “Top N mathematicians” (N=5,10,100, etc.). As I expected, Leonhard Euler presented in each of them, usually in the first position.

All I want is to tell a short story about relations between Leonhard Euler and Saint Petersburg. They met when both were very young. It happened in 1727. Euler was only 20 and Petersburg was only 24. Their meeting was a result of a chain of different events. In 1724 Peter the Great established the Academy of Science in his newborn capital. Several famous scientists were invited, including brothers Daniel and Nicolaus Bernoulli, representatives of the well-known family. At the same time, Euler applied for a physics professorship at the University of his hometown Basel. But he didn’t get the position and accepted the offer from Russian Academy of Science to take the vacancy of physiologist (his friend Daniel Bernoulli recommended him). Fortunately, upon arrival he went from medical department to a position in the mathematics department of the academy.

Portrait of Leonhard Euler by Jakob Emanuel Handmann (1753)

Portrait of Leonhard Euler by Jakob Emanuel Handmann (1753)

It was a turbulent time in Russian history. After the death of Peter the Great in 1725, the rulers and their favourites changed frequently. The political course was very chaotic and periodically the Academy (as well as St. Petersburg itself) was on the edge of a shutdown. Euler even received an appointment to the Russian Navy as a secondary position in case of dismission of Academy. Finally, he left for Berlin in 1741 in search of more comfortable and predictable life.

These sixteen years spent in Saint Petersburg were very productive for Leonhard Euler. He came as a young graduate and had left as a world-famous mathematician. In Sant Petersburg he married Katharina Gsell, the daughter of another expat from Switzerland. But Russia had its specifics: when he was asked by Prussian Empress: “Why are you speaking so briefly?”, he replied, “Your Majesty, I came from the country, where you can be executed for a word.”

But Leonhard Euler never got fully separated from Saint Petersburg. He continued to publish his works in the proceedings of the Russian Academy of Science, he hosted Russian students. And the Russian government always treated him as an honorary citizen. For example, when Euler’s house in Charlottenburg was ransacked by Russian troops during Seven Years’ War, he was overcompensated by Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Eventually, in 1766 Leonhard Euler accepted the invitation of next Russian Empress Catherine (later known as Catherine the Great) to return to Saint Petersburg. Political situation had changed dramatically. Russia became one of the most powerful, stable and rich empires of Europe, and Saint Petersburg became one of the most glittering European capital cities.

Leonhard Euler spent the rest of his life in Saint Petersburg. His life during this period was hard. He lost his eyesight. His house was demolished in the fire. He lost his dear wife. But he continued to work very intensively and he had full support from the Russian government that did its very best in order to provide him with ideal conditions for creative work.

The tomb of Leonhard Euler

The tomb of Leonhard Euler

Leonhard Euler died on 18 September 1783. He was buried in Smolensk Lutheran Cemetery (for foreigners) on Vasilevskiy Island of St. Petersburg. In 1957 he was reburied in Saint Alexander Nevsky Lavra – the burial-ground for most outstanding sons and daughters of Russian Empire: military leader Alexander Suvorov, writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, composer Piotr Tchaikovsky and others. So finally, Leonhard Euler has got the highest possible recognition from Russia: he lies in the most sacred ground of the Russian nation.

Seminar in the Euler International Mathematical Institute

The group of Russian and German students after the joint seminar in the Euler International Mathematical Institute. Saint Petersburg, 2009.